Home Theatre, Manchester; Monday 9th October 2017.
All over the planet, at a pace faster than anyone could ever hope to keep up with, old-world governance structures (religion, gender, race, lines drawn on maps, etc) that have served (and also enslaved) mankind for millennia are collapsing. And the last torch-bearers who are so desperately trying to make their made-up constructs “great again” know it.
It is the internet itself, with its multi-billion-strong army of humanoid worker ants that now rules the world.
We are now less than one lifetime away from AI engines with enough computational and learning power to fabricate or concoct any video or voice recording to the point where actual living human beings with brains will be left unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. The machines are already better than you, and they’re only going to get better.
But before we get to that nightmare scenario there is a more pressing and urgent concern: all the nasty crap that’s happening on the internet now.
Enter Javaad Alipoor: writer, director and theatre maker. Javaad has assertively dipped his toes into the messy and peculiar world of internet extremism, poking a stick in all the nooks and crannies in order to find out what is actually going on there.
The Believers Are But Brothers is a brief glimpse of something that nice, polite people shouldn’t be looking at. Only bad people watch videos of beheadings, or send terrifying abuse/threats to humanoid journalists whilst smugly hiding behind the digital equivalent of the burka that they want to see banned.
The Believers Are But Brothers is an exploration of how these relatively new digital ecosystems are giving hitherto frustrated men (as Alipoor said himself, he couldn’t blag it as a woman for too long) a platform and a voice. But the issue is so complex – these humans suffered from these fragilities long before the internet found its way into everyone’s pocket: are they just finally getting to express themselves or are they actually turning into something altogether even nastier?
Partly a documentary-style lecture on what he found and partly a theatrical performance, the show portrays the internet journeys taken by three seemingly ordinary and otherwise very boring and insecure men. As well as the subject matter being unique and unusual, the presentation style is also refreshingly innovative.
In the post-show discussion, TV presenter and comedian Hardeep Singh Koli noted how The Believers Are But Brothers breaks the rules of theatre. Before the main performance began, audience members were invited to join Javaad’s WhatsApp group. Throughout the show he occasionally paused to share some cute pictures of cats doing funny things, and a lol picture of Lionel Richie asking: “Halal – is it meat you’re looking for?” But then some slightly more sinister texts started arriving, including one from a guy named Al Ghareeb: “The brother will meet you in Istanbul. You will be with us soon”.
The deliberate use of mobile phones in the performance added a new meaning to the term immersive theatre – this created the strange sense of actually being part of terrorist cell, reinforced by one of Javaad’s first messages which explained that WhatsApp is an encrypted messaging service which can’t be read unless your phone is hacked.
Another of Hardeep Singh Koli’s observations in the post-show discussion was that the modern, internet generation of youngsters seem to want to come away from their internet interactions with more questions than answers. This is precisely how The Believers Are But Brothers ends. No questions are answered, but then they probably were never going to be answered, it’s all far too complicated for the non-internet-based human mind to fathom.
Instead this show gets it just about right, without being patronising or preachy about extremism or extremists, Javaad Alipoor simply tells it like it is. Unlike the undisputed master of political analytics, Adam Curtis, who chooses to wrap his astute hypotheses in extravagant layers of mind-bending video and music; Alipoor offers a less emphatic conclusion and instead just puts the evidence on show for everyone to decide for themselves.
The Believers Are But Brothers is a rare chance to go somewhere where you’re not allowed to go. Exactly what to make of what you find there is for you to decide for yourself.